The race for the County Legislature’s District 7 seat, covering Kingston’s wards 6, 7 and 8, is a rematch between Democratic incumbent Jennifer Schwartz Berky and Republican Brian Woltman. In 2015, Berky beat Woltman by a two-to-one margin in a Democratic primary to replace the retiring longtime legislator Jeanette Provenzano.
Woltman, who served for years on the city’s Democratic Committee and served as campaign treasurer for former mayor Shayne Gallo, switched his party affiliation to Republican last year. He will run on Republican, Conservative and Independence Party lines against Berky who hold the Democratic and Working Families lines.
The race for the legislative seat was roiled last week when the Ulster Town Board voted to honor Freedom of Information Act requests filed over the summer by the Kingston Times and local talk-radio host Richard Cahill Jr. seeking access to dashcam video of a May 24 incident involving Berky and Town of Ulster Police Officer Gary Short. In the video, which has garnered tens of thousands of views on YouTube, Berky becomes increasingly distraught after she’s pulled over for driving 43 mph in a 30 mph zone on Ulster Avenue. In a statement issued after the video’s release Berky thanked Short for his “patience and professionalism” and described her own conduct as “unacceptable.” Berky’s response also included a statement of support from Kingston Democratic Committee Chairman Joe Donaldson, legislative Democratic caucus leader Hector Rodriguez and representatives from Citizen Action and the Working Families Party. Woltman declined to comment on the video.
Berky, 53, is a former environmental and social policy project manager for the World Bank. She moved to Kingston in 2003 to be closer to her family. She spent eight years working as deputy director of the county’s planning office before opening her own consulting firm focused on urban planning and design. She helped found the civic education group KingstonCitizens.org and has contributed her expertise to local planning initiatives including the city’s application for a $10 million state Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant.
“Everyone saw that I had significant policy and county government experience and that [service in the legislature] would be a great way of consolidating that,” said Berky of her move into politics. “I had worked with almost every group in Kingston on almost every issue.”
In the legislature, Berky has been an energetic presence. She serves on committees guiding county policy on tourism, transit, housing, planning, the arts and education. She also hosts regular community meetings and carries a binder full of letters from constituents to consult during committee meetings. Berky said her legislative philosophy stems from her career at the World Bank where she worked on projects to solicit community input and connect average people to their government.
“That’s so important to me,” said Berky of her constituent outreach. “Because when you connect people to their government you get stringer government and more open government.”
On the legislature, Berky is a co-sponsor of legislation — still in the committee process — to strengthen the county’s Human Rights Commission by giving the body the power to conduct hearings and levy fines in cases of public accommodation and other discrimination. If she wins re-election, Berky said, she hopes to secure funding for BOCES to implement a well-regarded, evidence-based anti-bullying program to serve all of the county’s school districts. Other priorities for a second term, Berky said, include pushing for open government policies that would give citizens easy access to information on the county’s finances, contracts and other public records.
Berky also weighed in on the issue of RUPCO’s proposal to build low-income supportive housing for seniors at the former site of the Kingston Alms House on Flatbush Avenue. (The site sits within District 7.) Woltman’s campaign literature accused Berky of remaining “silent” on the controversial project which faces stiff opposition from neighbors. But Berky notes that there has not been a single vote in the legislature relating to the Alms House during her tenure. Berky, who recuses herself from all votes involving RUPCO because she has done contract work for the nonprofit, said that she believed the county had made a mistake in transferring the property to the Ulster County Economic Development Agency for marketing and sale rather than putting it through the open bidding process normally required of county-owned properties. The transfer cleared the way for the site’s sale to RUPCO without signoff from lawmakers or input from the public.
“The right way to make policies and plans is to start with the stakeholders,” said Berky. “It should have been done as a bottom-up process.”
While Berky touts her record of constituent engagement, Woltman said he’s running to give voice to city residents who increasingly feel frozen out of the process by Kingston’s Democrat-dominated political establishment. Echoing Gallo’s populist appeal to what he called “Lunchbucket Kingston,” Woltman said the city’s Democratic Committee has drifted away from its working class roots and become dominated by a “clique” of connected insiders who were out of touch with everyday taxpayers.
“I feel that I didn’t so much leave my party as my party, on the local level, left me,” said Woltman of his decision to become a Republican.
Woltman, 55, has worked for the City of Kingston for 22 years. He serves at the city’s chief purchasing agent, overseeing procurement and contracts for all goods and services.
Woltman said that he believed Berky had contributed to a “contentious” atmosphere in the legislature and alienated fellow lawmakers. Woltman added that Berky’s legislative record was thin or nonexistent, saying that he was unaware of a single piece of Berky-sponsored legislation that had become law.
“The legislature sets policy and sets the budget for the county,” said Woltman. That’s a lot of power and authority and I think we could be doing a better job.”
Woltman believes that the county missed a major opportunity to capitalize on the popularity of the tourist rail line currently operated by the Catskill Mountain Railroad. Woltman said a decision by county officials to limit a lease on the line to just five years had discouraged competition for an operation that he believes has the potential to become a major attraction and economic driver for the city. Woltman added that while he believes the recent boom in the city’s art scene and an influx of new residents has benefited Kingston and the county, more must be done to build sustainable economic development.
“What’s happening in Kingston with the arts is wonderful, but I don’t know if that’s a sector that can survive another economic downturn,” said Woltman. “We need some industry here.”
Woltman said the alms house controversy was an example of the legislature’s current leadership failure to engage with city residents. Woltman said that the issue came up again and again as he walked the streets of the district speaking to residents. And, he said, Berky’s recusal on all RUPCO-related issues meant that should the alms house, or another RUPCO proposal come before the legislature, the district’s residents would be left voiceless.
“This particular moment calls for a leader who’s not only going to listen to the people and their message, but heed their message,” said Woltman.